“Understanding and managing attention is now the single most important determinant of business success.” ~ Tom Davenport, former director of Accenture Institute of Strategic Change
My childhood home had a steep driveway, sloping up to the road. Dad wanted to leave to go on a cycling trip, but it was very icy that day and he couldn’t get traction to move backward up the drive. Thankfully, there was an easy solution: to roll forward into the garage so that he could get up some momentum before hitting the ice. The problem was, he had already attached his bike to the roof of the car so that he could drive to the start point. As soon as he rolled the car forward, it hit the wall above the garage and the bike was ripped from its mountings.
How could we both have failed to see something so obvious? I was standing right next to the car, and could clearly see that the top of the bike was much higher than the garage door, yet still missed it.
This is a great example of the problem called inattention blindness. If you’ve ever seen the popular “invisible gorilla” video, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Originally created as part of an experiment conducted at Harvard University, it is of two teams of basketball players. Viewers are invited to count the number of passes made by one of the teams, unaware that, in the middle of all the activity, a person in a gorilla suit will walk through the group. Despite how obvious the gorilla is to anyone who already knows about it, scientists have discovered that most people miss the gorilla the first time they watch it, and in other, similar experiments this number can be as high as 80 percent.
Interestingly, without the task of counting the passes, pretty much everyone watching the video will see the gorilla, and this gives us the clue to what happened with my Dad’s bike. Focusing on the task of counting passes causes most of us to miss what would otherwise be obvious, and similarly, it was the fact that our attention was overly focused on the problem of the ice that led us to fail to consider the broader consequences of our solution. When focusing on one task, it can be hard to notice much else.
These examples are highly representative of life. There are always multiple objects or streams of thought that we could concentrate on, and if we become locked onto any one of them it will dominate our attention, leading to us becoming unaware of other things around us.
The solution needed, which is core to all such problems, is the ability to manage attention more effectively. Today, this capability is commonly referred to as “mindfulness”. This is a mental state where the contents of the mind are very stable, enabling us to pay attention in a deliberate way, able to choose and maintain our focus, rather than having it pulled around by distractions.
In the examples above, the core problem is driven by the inappropriate focus of attention, which then blocks awareness to such an extent that even critical, and obvious, information outside the area of attention gets completely missed. This article discusses one of the most effective and accessible approaches to developing attention – meditation – describing how it enables us to change the way the brain perceives the world, thus creating a shift in awareness. It also covers some of the other, many benefits that we can gain from this practice.
Despite its historical links to religion, there’s nothing mystical or weird about meditation. Whatever form it takes, meditation is brain training, pure and simple. Amongst other things, it enables us to develop the mental skill of being able to focus attention with intention, which is a skill which has many modern-world benefits.
While the article is largely about attention, I want to reinforce the importance of intention in the process. This is because so much of what we do, and experience, is driven by the subconscious mind according to deeply buried rules. Even our perception of ‘out there’ is a construction which gives us the impression that we are able to see a full rich picture of “reality”. However, because the processes by which this happens are so effortless and unconscious, anything we miss will be completely invisible. To change this, we must introduce the power of intention.
An example of how powerful intention can be is observable when people listen to music. Research has shown that if they do so with an intention to feel happier, they actually become happier, whilst if they only seek to relax their happiness levels don’t move. It is the intention to become happier that makes the difference, which is achieved by consciously directing attention towards the desired outcome.
Thus, intention gives us the ability to bring conscious choice to the act of placing attention. As we develop the capacity to interrupt the automatic, unconscious processes, though mindfulness, we can literally change the way we perceive things and reduce problems like inattention blindness. Meditation enables us to develop this mental capacity. It takes time and deliberate effort; however, like going to the gym, if you are willing to put in the work, the benefits can be assured.